Is It Possible to Invest Equally in All of Your Children?

One expert says it may be impossible. Here's why.

Posted Jul 08, 2016

Dubova/Shutterstock
Source: Dubova/Shutterstock

Ask most parents whether they try to treat all of their children equally and fairly, and you'll get a look akin to what you might receive if you had asked them which of their children they planned to cook for dinner. Anyone with more than one child knows the contortions a parent goes through to balance the number of Christmas presents, the opulence of birthday parties, and so on in an effort to maintain the appearance of not playing favorites.

Frank T. McAndrew
Source: Frank T. McAndrew

In this post I address the indelicate question of whether such even-handedness is possible or even desirable in the long run. (In a future post I'll explore the question of whether the pursuit of such fairness is in fact an optimal strategy for parents.)

Let me begin:

Imagine a hypothetical family, and imagine that the colored space inside the circles in this article represent everything that the parents have to invest in their children. By investment, I mean time, money, energy, and any other resources that a parent can give to a child. Let’s also assume that this hypothetical family has five children, evenly spaced with one birth every two years. For the sake of argument, let’s also assume that the children grow up, leave the family, and stop extracting resources from the parents in exactly the same order at two-year intervals later in life. 

I fully understand that things do not work this cleanly in real life, but let’s go with this for the sake of making the point; I don't believe that the artificiality of this example disrupts the logic of the argument.

Frank T. McAndrew
Source: Frank T. McAndrew

The blue circle (top, above) represents the first two years of the first-born child’s life, when he or she enjoys the full benefit of the parents’ undivided investment. The second circle, split evenly between blue and orange, represents the parents’ valiant attempts at fairness in dividing everything equally between their two children.

Some of you may already see the problem here. Even if the parents successfully manage an exactly even split, what about the undivided two full years that the first-born has already received? This is a head start of bankable resources that the second-born will never make up.

Frank T. McAndrew
Source: Frank T. McAndrew

The situation gets worse as more children come into the family. Follow the chain of circles down the page and notice how with each new birth, each child receives a smaller share of the wealth, and each new child starts out with a smaller share than the child born before them.

Now notice what happens as children begin to leave the family. When each child leaves, the remaining siblings receive a larger share of the pie. However, there are only two children (the first-born and the last-born) who will ever get to lay claim to the whole enchilada for any time period.

Frank T. McAndrew
Source: Frank T. McAndrew

I grew up in a family of five children.  Only two of the five finished college, acquired advanced degrees, and permanently moved out of the area where we grew up: The first-born and the last-born. A coincidence? Perhaps, but it fits this predicted pattern.

Which children really get short-changed? The middle children, of course—and the more middle they are, the more desperate their situation. Yes, the baby of the family starts out with the smallest share of the investment, but it never gets worse after that, and their share grows over time.

Frank T. McAndrew
Source: Frank T. McAndrew
Frank T. McAndrew
Source: Frank T. McAndrew

There are studies that show that first-borns tend to get more of their parents’ time and last-borns more of their parents’ money compared to other children, and that, on average, middle-borns report less emotional closeness to their parents than their siblings at the extremes of the birth order.

Frank McAndrew
Source: Frank McAndrew

I want to again acknowledge that I make this sound more straightforward than it actually is. Every family's situation depends on factors like the gender, and neediness, of the children; the actual time between births; and a host of other things. I also anticipate that readers will be able to think of many exceptions to the rule I have described. However, try to keep in mind that one is rarely objective in evaluating the fairness of one's own outcomes.

In summary: My argument is that a parent’s best efforts at complete equity and fairness are doomed to fail by forces beyond their control.

In a future post, I will address the even stickier issue of whether parents actually strive for equity, or if there is an inherent advantage for those who play favorites.

Frank McAndrew
Source: Frank McAndrew